Is it possible to boost poverty-reducing economic investment and growth in Africa by working with, rather than against, neo-patrimonial politics? This study of seven ‘middle African’ countries shows that neo-patrimonialism can be harnessed for developmental ends – if pro-market, pro-rural policies and an institutional system for centralising and distributing economic rents with a long-term view are in place. However, problems associated with developmental patrimonial systems include: a potential loss of civil liberties; lack of sustainability; and inapplicability in some country contexts.
Most African political economies are characterised by high levels of clientelism, corruption and rent-seeking – a constitutive feature of systems frequently called ‘patrimonial’ or ‘neo-patrimonial’. Current donor orthodoxy is that neo-patrimonialism is irredeemably bad for economic development, but evidence from other regions such as Asia, together with a re-examination of the African record itself, suggests that this may not be true.
The re-examination of the economic performance of seven African countries found that the strongest performing regimes were Kenya between 1965 and 1975; Côte d’Ivoire between 1960 and 1975; Malawi between 1961 and 1978 and Rwanda from 2000 onwards. Aside from having a generally pro-market, pro-rural bias in economic ideology and policy, all the strong performers had in common a centralised, long-horizon rent process. The precise mechanism for centralising rents varied from place to place, but in all cases it involved a blend of top-down, personal rule with technocratic competence. Although it was common in all these countries for state employees to leverage their public positions for private gain (many politicians and civil servants set themselves up in business) the prevalence of the most damaging forms of corruption like embezzlement or theft appears to have been comparatively low.
Centralisation permits a leadership to put some limits on rent-seeking and to play a coordinating role, steering rent creation into economically high potential areas, or to areas that must be resourced in the interests of political stability. Long-horizon rent creation means directing a substantial portion of rent-earning opportunities to activities that involve increases in value-added, or transformations in the productive forces over time.
Provided rent management can be centralised and oriented to the long term, neo-patrimonialism can achieve a ‘virtuous circle’ of developmental rent management. This circle consisting of the following elements: organised clientelism; rents used centrally to finance politics; anti-corruption at least partly entrenched; key public goods provided, including venture capital; and strong economic performance. However, developmental patrimonialism is associated with several problems. For example:
- Multiparty democracy presents incentives for African leaders to focus on the short term, relaxing the strictures on rent creation and corruption and making long-horizon rent management more difficult to achieve.
- Developmental patrimonial systems may bring a loss of civil liberties.
- The sustainability of developmental patrimonialism is questionable. After a couple of decades of growth, an economy is likely to be sufficiently sophisticated and diversified as to require a more impersonal management form. Furthermore, decentralising pressures build up over time.
- In some countries, developmental patrimonialism is probably a non-starter. Where centrifugal pressures are very strong, perhaps for ethnic reasons, attempts to centralise rents are likely to prove controversial. Nigeria and contemporary Kenya are examples. In states like Equatorial Guinea or Congo-Brazzaville, professional standards in the administration have fallen below a threshold at which developmental patrimonialism is conceivable, due to economic decline and political interference.
- If unproductive rent creation gets into strategically important sectors of the economy, like roads, power or port facilities, public goods crucial for business are likely to be under-provided, and investment and performance will fall below potential.